Thursday, December 29, 2005

Manasseh of Ilya and Y. Barzilay

I recently finished reading Yitzhak Barzilay's book on R. Manasseh of Ilya. R. Manasseh was a fascinating character. He was a student of the Vilna Goan, but wrote a pamphlet arguing for reconciliation between Hassidim and non-Hassidim. He wrote another work discussing the trop or cantilation marks and yet another, his mangum opus, on the Talmud. It is the later work that he is most well known for, although not necessarily in a positive way. The Tefferet Yisrael (R. Yisrael Lifshitz) on the Mishna quotes a brief passage from this commentary. R. Menasseh's comments appear on the first Mishna in Perek Alu Mitzhut. (Baba Metziah 1:1). He understands the Mishna in a different fashion than the Talmud, thus provoking some to argue such a position is heritical.

R. Manasseh was a controversial figure. His book on the reconciliation, Pesher Davar, was publicly burnt. His work on Talmud, Alphei Menashe, after either the publisher or some outsider (depending on the source, there are a couple versions of the story), destroyed it right before it was completed. R. Manasseh was forced to reproduce the entire work from memory and find a different printer.

Additionally, although he had a close relationship with the Vilna Goan, the Vilna Goan severed that relationship after learning R. Manasseh had been in contact with R. Shneur Zalman of Lida (Ba'al haTanya).

All this being said, he is ripe for an excellent biography. Unfortunately, Barzilay does not deviate from his norm, and put out another poor work. Although Barzilay has written on many other interesting figures of Jewish history, almost always he fails to do anything substantive or worthwhile with the subjects.

This work is full of gross supposition that are never supported by any facts. For instance we have sentences like this "It may be assumed that in a talented person like Manasseh, his critical faculties must have awakened rather early, and already in his youth he may have arrived at some of his nonconformist views with regard to the Halakhah and its historical development." (p. 24). Therefore, Barzilay wants to then claim and project back on Manasseh's early years and label him as a radical even then based only upon "his critical faculties." While that may be the case, there are also a million other possibilities. For instance, Manasseh was influenced later in life by someone else or he came to his "nonconformist views" based upon years of study and when he was 17 (according to Barzilay, again a guess) he did not hold these views.

Another example, where Barzilay is discussing Manasseh's frequent trips to his wealthy relatives house who had a terrific library, Barzilay makes the following statement: "The role of this library in Manasseh's life and intellectual growth cannot be overestimated . . . It may be further assumed, with a high degree of probability, that there also were to be found there the recent works of the Berlin maskilim, as well as those of the enlightened orthodox Jews from both Eastern Europe and the Germanies." Barzilay then goes on to cite to the many subscribers of various haskalah literature as "proof" this library contained these books. There a basic problem with this argument. Since Barzilay is able to point to where these books went to as the subscriber list, lists both person and place, why then isn't this rich relatives name ever listed if he was a collector of such works? Instead, Barzilay is satisfied to assume that the books were there as there were many haskalah books that "found [their] way among the Jews of Eastern Europe."

These are but two examples from a book that is rife with such sloppy work. The only redeeming fact of the book is the extensive quotation from R. Manasseh's works. As mentioned above, this is not the first book Barzilay wrote that fails miserably. He also did another biography on R. Shlomo Yehudah Rapoport (Shir), the son-in-law of the Ketzot HaChoshen and one of the leading figures of 19th century Eastern European Haskalah. This book is also disappointing.

unfortunate, the only other biography, Ben Porat Yosef, is no gem either. It was written by Mordechai Plungian an editor at the famed Romm press. This is more of an anecdotal than scholarly work. However, this work got Plungian in trouble as some claimed he attempted to make R. Manasseh into a maskil.

What is particularly strange is that a book review of Plungin's book appeared in HaMagid. At the JNUL site, which contains old Hebrew newspapers, the version they have appears to have that portion blacked out. The review in question appeared in HaMagid on March 8, 1858.

The full citation for Barzilay's book is Manasseh of Ilya: Precurser of Modernity Among the Jews of Eastern Europe (Manges Press, 1999).

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